New rules to restrict shale wastewater ponds could put tank manufacturers in demand

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By Laura Legere

The era of shale drilling waste pits is closing in Pennsylvania. Storage tanks and the companies that market them are on the rise.

Last week, the Department of Environmental Protection announced plans to ban temporary waste pits at Marcellus and Utica shale gas well sites, marking the official end, if the rules pass, of a once commonplace practice that regulators said every shale operator in the state has already dropped for tidier and safer alternatives using tank systems.

The environmental agency is also proposing to apply stricter standards similar to those that control the state’s landfill impoundments to the large centralized wastewater ponds that some shale operators use to store waste fluids from multiple well sites.

Companies that do not upgrade their centralized wastewater ponds, or impoundments, which can be the size of football fields and have been tied to several cases of soil and water contamination, will be forced to close them within three years of the rules taking effect.

For operators who do not want to deal with that bother or risk, companies that sell above-ground storage tanks or tank-based fluid treatment services are ready with options.

The trend for several years has been for companies to use modular tank systems instead of pits and ponds for both fresh and wastewater storage, said David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist with Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.

“You can bring them in, deploy them, store fluids in a relatively quick fashion and once you’re done, remove the tanks and take them to the next site,” he said.

Impoundments can be comparatively expensive and time-consuming to build, and their footprint is larger, although they can be an efficient method for storing large quantities of wastewater if drilling operations are concentrated around them.

For environmental regulators, the biggest issue is the impoundments’ record of failure.

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